In Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury comic strip, whenever President George W. Bush (represented by the empty helmet of a Roman centurion) is pushed to explain his inexplicable policies, he answers every question by repeating, "9/11, 9/11, 9/11 ... It changed everything."
This is great satire because it is only a slight exaggeration of reality. The Bush administration did seize upon the brutal events of that one terrible day and make them the prism through which it views all of reality. From that point on, every day has been an episode of 24, and will be until further notice. From that viewpoint, the use of military force as a first resort makes sense—we are in an eternal war against an invisible, and thus omnipresent, foe. And so does the administration's race to centralize government power. There's no time for congressional hearings or judicial review when the time bomb is ticking.
Under the sway of Big Al the Gore-acle, "global warming" sometimes seems poised to become that kind of all-purpose explanation on the leftward end of the political dial. Drought in Florida? Must be global warming. Floods in Texas? Global warming. Heavy hurricane season? Global warming. Light hurricane season? Global warming again.
It's a catch-all that is catching on.
Of course, human-caused global warming is real and requires urgent action. The same was true of the slaughter on 9/11. That attack should be the central reference point for U.S. national defense policies. And global warming should be at the center of our government's energy and transportation policies. But neither of them explains everything. And if the non-governmental forces that purport to advocate basic social change allow global warming to become their "9/11" prism on political reality, we will almost certainly live to regret it.
AS EVERYONE KNOWS by now, Laurie David, the executive producer of Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, has devoted her considerable Hollywood connections and media skills to global warming publicity. And it is working. The issue is attaining the status of a pop culture fad. And corporations—from BP to agribusiness monster Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)—are getting on the bandwagon with advertising that touts their extensive investment in more sustainable, non-fossil fuel alternatives (usually ethanol and other biofuels).
David touts solutions to global warming that include more energy-efficient home light bulbs and recycled toilet paper. Much of the emphasis in her campaign is on Americans as consumers taking personal responsibility for their share of climate change. Meanwhile, energy corporations are promoting solutions that will save their investment in the internal combustion engine and the infrastructure of tanks, pipelines, and pumps that serve it. Agribusinesses such as ADM see not only a big new market for their products, but a chance to overcome lingering global objections to genetically modified grains that allow them to control the agricultural cycle, from seed to final use.
And on another front, utility companies, whose coal-fired power plants account for a huge share of the carbon emissions problem, are clamoring for federal regulation, sooner rather than later, so they can apply the necessary technological fixes (including a renewal of nuclear energy production) and start passing the costs on to us, the customers, at the earliest possible date.
It's easy to see a scenario shaping up in which the focused energy of a generation is brought to bear on global warming. Perhaps 20 years down the line, the problem will have been addressed. Carbon emissions will plummet and climate change will slow. And wealth and power, in the U.S. and the world, will be more centralized and unequally distributed than it has ever been in all of human history.
Global corporations need global warming fixed as badly as anyone does. They hate unpredictable risk. They need, for instance, to know where the coastline is going to be in 50 years, and which passages through the Arctic will or will not be navigable. If all we want is to fix global warming by any means necessary, they will do it. But they will do it on their own terms, in ways that maximize their profit and further entrench their control over vital public resources.
If what we want is a more just and sustainable world in which people control their own resources and guide their own collective destiny, we may find ourselves nostalgic for the days of endangered polar bears.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.